Just in case the Rugby Football Union did not have enough on its plate at this late stage of the campaign – the imbroglio surrounding Martin Johnson and Brian Ashton; the complexities of the new accord between Twickenham and the Premiership clubs, which will be activated in July; the small matter of a two-Test trip to New Zealand in June – it is now involved in a serious battle for the sport's heart and soul. And this time, the union is very definitely on the side of the angels.
Radical new laws – "Experimental Law Variations" in the language of the International Rugby Board, the body responsible for promoting them – are currently being tested in the southern hemisphere's Super 14 competition. Not all of them: even the Super 14 types, who have long dabbled with a form of rugby routinely condemned in northern climes as "candyfloss", refused to touch the more extreme ideas dreamed up by the board's Laws Project Group, chaired by Bill Nolan of Scotland.
But the whole set of ELVs, great and small – from awarding free-kicks rather than penalties for virtually every offence under the sun and allowing players to handle the ball in the ruck and collapse mauls with impunity, to rebranding the touchjudge as an "assistant referee" – have been fast-tracked on to the agenda for the next IRB gathering on 1 May, and the RFU fears they will be imposed on the European game, initially on a trial basis but ultimately for good, from the start of next season. "Once they're in, they'll never be allowed back out," said one very senior Twickenhamite on Tuesday night.
Bluntly put, the RFU is passionately against the general thrust of the ELVs, which it believes will drive the maul from the game, undermine the importance of the scrum by forcing teams to select identikit forwards with no specialist set-piece skills and reduce the sport to the spitting image of rugby league, seasoned with a dash of seven-a-side – something that might suit the Australians, who have allowed their once all-powerful forward game to wither, but not England, who reached successive World Cup finals through the efforts of an outstanding pack.
The union is busily garnering support ahead of the May meeting, in the knowledge that ELV enthusiasts will need a two-thirds majority if the changes are to be foisted on the Premiership, the Heineken Cup and the Six Nations – not to mention the grass-roots game, where many thousands of players enjoy the sport they are already playing and show no desire for new-fangled ideas that threaten the very essence of the sport. Wales and Ireland are thought to be with England.
France, however, are being their usual mysterious selves on the rugby politics front, and there has been no clear declaration of intent from the Italians. The RFU remain a couple of votes short of blocking the ELVs, hence the frenzied discussions now taking place with other unions.
Ed Morrison, the popular Bristolian who refereed the 1995 World Cup final in Johannesburg and is now the RFU's elite referee manager, is deeply concerned about the potential effect of the ELVs. "I'm in love with the game we have,"he said. "It's important not to close the eyes to ways of improving something, even if it is already very special, but I start from the principle of maintaining the unique facets that make rugby union the sport we hold so dear."
The public relations scrap is now underway. Some of the biggest names in southern hemisphere coaching – Bob Dwyer, who guided the Wallabies to their 1991 World Cup success; Robbie Deans, the New Zealander who has succeeded John Connolly at the head of the Australian national team; John Kirwan, the former All Black wing now in charge in Japan – this week declared themselves fully in favour of the "new rugby".
On this side of the equator, no lesser a figure than Ian McGeechan of Wasps, a Lions head coach three times over with power to add, has taken the opposite view, arguing that if the current laws are refereed accurately and consistently, they are the best in the game's history.
And so the stage is set. If the RFU is sufficiently persuasive, next season's Premiership and European rugby will retain its many virtues. If it is not, Super 14 will soon be coming to a rugby ground near you. In which case, we can all give up and go shopping.Reuse content